Archive | Life as a Writer

Reading Like a Writer

Read like a writerFor a long time I thought reading like a writer meant simply reading a lot. That’s part of it. However, while reading is critical for writers, passively absorbing stories isn’t enough. To really read like a writer, you have to stop trusting writers.

Used to be that when people asked what I thought of a book, I would say “it was pretty good.” Sometimes it was “really good” or sometimes “meh,” but generally I was satisfied with anything that told a good story. I was reading like a reader.

Once I started writing, I grew more a little more critical. I started noticing loose ends of a story line, or particularly beautiful prose. But it wasn’t until I started reading unpublished work that I actually developed the ability to read like a writer.

As I mentioned in a previous post, reading submissions for a literary journal was a great way to get started, but I have read my share of stories for workshops as well. Preparing to give informed feedback meant being diligent, looking for all the little things I had learned in school, from split infinitives all the way up to story structure.

After years of reading unpublished work with this mindset, the practice has started to spill over into all the reading I do. After countless seminars and panels, I’ve started to realize that authors are (gasp) just people, and they don’t always get it right.

In some ways this sucks, because my threshold for a good read has gone way up. These days, to get lost in a book, it has to have everything right. So nowadays, when I say a book was great, what I mean is: it was so good that I forgot all about being a writer and just fell into it. Very few books hit that mark.

The next challenge is to bring that kind of eye to my own work. My understanding is that it’s not really possible unless you take some time away from your work, so step one is to finish the draft. Step two will be to put it in a drawer and forget about it for a while. Then I can come back to it and attempt to bring my most critical eye.

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Reading for a Literary Journal Will Make You a Better Writer

Six years ago, I began volunteering once a week to read submissions for a literary journal. At the time I was in grad school, and I was trying to build up my resume. I figured Associate Editor would look good on paper, and it might be a fun way to get to know some of my fellow classmates.

What I discovered is far more valuable than a blurb on my resume. Here it is: The best way to improve your own writing is to read the work of others.

That may seem like a no-brainer. We all read. But if you only read published work you are missing out on something magical. Reading for a journal is a special kind of education.

Because the truth is, most of the work that journals receive for review is not good. And you can learn a lot by reading work that needs a polish. After reading fifteen stories that mix metaphors, you’re going to find mixed metaphors really annoying, and you will be far less likely to mix them in your own writing.

What’s more, if you’re in a room full of readers, you get a unique peek into how editors read submissions. If someone can’t help but read a cover letter out loud because it is so ridiculous, you will make a mental note to never be such an ass in your own query letter.

When it comes down to final decisions, and the group is debating which stories will get the coveted pages between the covers of your journal, you will hear first-hand what pushes one story into print, while others get relegated to the rejection pile.

What reading for a journal will NOT do is make it easier for you to get your own story published in that journal. Do not be the guy who volunteers twice and then asks when they’re going to publish your story. Just don’t do that. In fact, assume that whatever journal you’re reading for is off limits for submission. It’s just a matter of being professional.

If you’re a serious writer, find a journal near you and ask if you can join their team of readers. This will take a bit of sleuthing. Try local colleges, go to a local book fair, check out Meetup.com, or if all else fails, you can volunteer virtually (most journals accept digital submissions, and many have remote readers).

Reading remotely isn’t as good as being in the room, but the exercise of reading a piece, giving it a thumbs up or down, and having to justify your decision in a sentence or two, will improve your writing. I promise.

At the same time, you will be supporting a literary journal with free labor. It’s a win-win.

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Buddhism

Spirit rock
Two women with bibles in their hands just knocked on my door.

They kindly asked if I struggled with anxiety, and suggested that I reference my bible Matthew 6:18 for some guidance on how to deal with it. I thanked them (because we all deal with anxiety) and I told them we’re a buddhist household. I own a bible, a beautiful one that belonged to my mother when she was a child, but I keep it on the shelf for reference. I find it comes in handy when I’m writing, particularly when I’m writing religious characters.

This stumped them. I’ve had the experience before. You tell a bible thumper that you’re buddhist and they just don’t know what to say. They know buddhism is a religion (though I prefer to think of it as a philosophy), but they don’t know much about it. They smiled and continued with the script: It’s good to have somewhere to turn when anxiety builds up.

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I spent all last week in silent meditation at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Norther California (pictured above – isn’t it beautiful?). No talking, no writing, no reading. Just me, and 100 or so other people, sitting silently with our own thoughts. People think it’s the silence that’s hard, but for me, it’s not reading. I have trouble falling asleep at night without reading.

This was the third retreat I’ve done, and the shortest. Still, even just having a few days to be quiet and meditate is such a welcome change of pace. My hubby and I try to make space for each other to go once a year, but for many years I’ve chosen to do writing retreats instead. Taking this time felt like a nod to balance in my life.

Anyhow, I didn’t tell the nice ladies at the door all this. I simply thanked them for their care and concern and wished them luck on their walk. Next time I think I will invite them in for coffee. I would LOVE to know what motivates them. How is it that they spend their days walking from house to house singing the word of the lord? There’s a story there.

But I already have a story, and right now, that’s what I need to be working on.

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6 Tips for Forming a Writing Group

Years ago, when my friend Amy asked me if I wanted to be a part of her writing group, I was skeptical.

I was just wrapping up my masters degree, and had been a part of three different writing groups, all of which had lasted no more than a meeting or two before going down in flames. I knew having a group of writers to share work with was important (because all of my instructors had said as much), but it just didn’t seem to be working out.

Luckily, Amy knew what she was doing. Or maybe she just had really good instincts. Either way, the group of five women she pulled together was amazing. We met every two weeks for five years. It was a formative experience. Though the group has morphed, and is headed in a new direction (more on that soon), I wanted to share the things that I feel made the group so successful.

In my experience, the best writing groups:

  1. Have five members. With five you still have a group if one, or even two people have to miss a meeting. Our rule was always that if three of us could make it we kept the meeting on the calendar. (If only two of us could make it, we usually just met up for drinks.) More than five, and you have to wait too long to have your own work come up in the rotation for feedback. Five is the sweet spot.
  2. Have members that live within a few miles of each other. It’s hard to make time for a writing group, and adding a commute doesn’t help. The other, failed, groups I participated in usually started to fall apart because people didn’t feel like driving after a long day of work.
  3. Are diverse. I’m partial to all-female groups, but I loved that our group had a wide range of ages (from 20s up through 50s). Three of us were married, two weren’t. Three of us worked in academia, two did not. Of those of us who had kids, one was remarried with teenagers, and two had young kids. We also wrote in different genres. From fiction, to stage play, to memoir, to musical, we all brought something different to the group. I actually thought this would make it difficult to give feedback, but it worked fantastically and kept the group interesting.
  4. Meet on a regular schedule. We chose every-other Thursday at a member’s home. We would all get out our calendars and schedule three months at a time. I know some groups meet more or less often, but for us, that was perfect.
  5. Have an agreed upon structure. We began each meeting with half an hour of social time (or time for the chronically late to arrive). Then half an hour of feedback for one writer, followed by half an hour feedback for a second writer. We wrapped up with a half hour of time to plan who would submit next, give each other advice, talk about what books we’re reading, etc. Who ever was hosting was in charge of keeping the group on schedule.
  6. Wine. Lots of wine.

If anyone else out there has tips for forming a kick-ass writing group, I’d love to hear them.

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What I Learned at AWP This Year

AWP is a pretty epic gathering of writers. I went once before, when I was in grad school, and had to travel all the way to Chicago to do it. So when I found out it was going to be here in LA this year I signed up right quick.

AWP16

In case you’re unfamiliar, the annual AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference is like a lot of other conference-style events, except much more awesome because it’s all about writing (that’s Jonathan Franzen there on the left). There are seminars, and panels, and parties, but the best part is the massive expo floor with hundreds of booths, almost all of which exist to promote literary journals.

For three whole days, I wondered the convention center, sitting in on sessions, and bit by bit making my way to every booth on the expo floor. I met a lot of journal editors, including some that have my latest short story in their slush piles. I shook hands, and bought a few editions. Totally worth the price of admission.

Here are a few things I learned over the weekend at this year’s AWP:

  • The Sun Magazine is looking for fiction. Not only do they pay (well), they are also a fantastic publication printing high-quality work. I sent them my latest short story, and you should too.
  • A woman on a panel, talking about how women are published at a lesser rate in most journals, noted that when they are rejected, women tend to stop submitting. Men just send another story until something is accepted. This is not to say there isn’t a bias in publishing, but women need to know that a big part of being published is simply being persistent.
  • On that note, I discovered VIDA, a non-profit dedicated to women in the arts. They actually do a count every year of the percentage of women published by major journals. You can read about it here. #wecount Spoiler alert – The Paris Review is rocking it.
  • I attended a panel about forming a writers collective. The basic idea is that you gather about a dozen or so writers that you admire and pool your resources to help promote each other. Sounds pretty awesome to me. At some point, I really want to try this, but for now I’m focusing on finishing my novel, so I have something to share.
  • Lastly, I heard a well published writer encourage us all to just keep writing. He talked about how he wrote his first novel ten minutes at a time, in the driver’s seat of his car, before going into the office. What’s more, he said that when he looks at that writing, and compares it to writing he does now (with ample time to contemplate and formulate), he can’t tell the difference. Just keep writing.

Those were the major take-aways for me, the last one being the most important. Just keep writing.

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Talking Story with Charles Johnson

My UCLA extension class, Novel IV, ended Tuesday. I’ve said before what a great class it was, and one of the highlights was that the instructor arranged for us to Skype with the author of the book we had studied all quarter, “Middle Passage.”

Charles Johnson won the National Book Award for the book in 1990, and a quick look at his bio confirms that the man really knows what he’s talking about when it comes to writing.

We all got to introduce ourselves and ask two questions. What an opportunity. He is an incredibly thoughtful and engaging man, with a great sense of humor to boot.

Knowing that he is a buddhist, like myself, I asked him what he does if he has a story idea while meditating. He laughed and admitted it’s never happened to him. It happens to me when I’m on retreat, meditating for longer periods of time, and I never know if I should respect the practice of meditation and just let it go, or break my concentration to jot the idea down. When it happens, it always seems like the best idea I’ve ever had, and so it’s difficult to just let it go. Anyhow, Johnson’s vote was for stopping to write it down.

He said a lot of quotable things over the course of the class, but my favorite by far was about why he loves writing. He said: “Where else in life do you get to keep working at something until you get it right?” He talked about how we don’t get to edit our speech or our actions in the moments that they happen, but with fiction, we can revise until we’re happy with what we’ve got. I just love that.

I’m already signed up for Novel V, with the same instructor. It starts in two weeks, and I volunteered to be the first to submit fifty pages. So in the next couple weeks, I need to find time to polish up my first couple of chapters. Next week is AWP, and my kids’ spring break, so things continue to be hectic, but I will make the time somehow.

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Fiction Submission Spreadsheet

lit journalsRejection is part of being a writer. If you’re not getting rejected, you’re not submitting enough, and I haven’t been rejected in years.

For a long time I didn’t submit any short stories to journals because I was working on my novel, and it just isn’t done yet. But recently I pulled about twenty pages from the middle of my novel and tweaked them to stand on their own as a short story, because it’s time to get back in the game. My thinking is that if I can get those pages published it will not only be super encouraging, it might also land my writing on the coffee table of an agent or two.

The challenge of submitting is that it’s difficult to know where to start. If my goal is to be published in a journal that an agent might actually read, I have to aim high. The last time I really submitted anything I focused on local journals, as most of my stories are LA-based, and at that point I was a student, happy to have my work published anywhere, but at this point, I feel I’ve grown a lot as a writer. I have this crazy idea that I’ve actually become quite good at my craft, and to test that idea, I am only submitting to journals that receive a lot of submissions. I want to see if I’m the cream that rises, or the low-fat milk that gets left behind.

So I set up a spreadsheet. You can view it by clicking here. If you’d like to use it, which you are absolutely welcome to do, you will have to either download it, or copy it to your own drive. You won’t be able to edit it. I didn’t want people forgetting to copy it to their own folders and accidentally sharing their entire submission history, but I do welcome comments, if you have any thoughts on how it could be better.

Here’s how I use it:

  1. I spend a shit-ton of time making sure my story is ready. I get feedback from as many people as I can, I re-write, and edit until it’s as good as I can make it.
  2. Then, I go to the Lit Mags page of the Poets & Writers website
  3. I use all the filter options (including the advanced options) to set up a search. For me, that is genre: fiction, sub genre: lit fiction, format: print, payment: any
  4. I scroll through, page by page, looking for journal names that I recognize
  5. When I see one, I click to view details
  6. I use those details to fill in columns B-F of my spreadsheet. NOTE: for circulation enter the higher number that is listed (so if P&W lists circulation as 2,500-5,000, enter 5,000)
  7. Once I’ve entered details for every journal that is at all interesting, I do a data sort based on circulation, column D. In case you’re new to this: click in column D, select all, click on “data” up at the top, and choose the first option to “sort sheet by column D, A-Z.”
  8. You will notice that there is also a column (A) for rank. That column is my acknowledgement that size isn’t everything. Sometimes certain journals rank high for me because I know an editor there, or I know that an agent I’m interested in reads that journal. So after I’ve sorted for column D, I go through and add ranks. I don’t bother ranking 1-20. I use tiers. I rank things either 1, 2, or 3. So a journal that has a smaller circulation may still get a 1.
  9. Then I resort for column A.
  10. At that point I have my game plan. I submit to the top five journals on my list, noting the date I sent in my submissions.

Then, if I’m being honest, I am overcome with anxiety, and I spend a week obsessing over my final draft, editing it for stupid, tiny things (was she on the bus or in the bus?). Then, when I’m done obsessing, I submit to the next five journals on the list.

And then the waiting begins. But waiting for the inevitable rejections (because there will be rejections), seems easier when I have a game plan. When a rejection comes in I will simply pull up my handy spreadsheet, add “PASS” to column H, and send the story to the next journal on my list. (I always use PASS. Because the truth is, not every rejection is negative commentary on my writing. Sometimes a story just isn’t a good fit. PASS is just a way of being nice to myself. )

This method has worked for me in the past. True, I am aiming higher this time, so if I get through my list and my story hasn’t been accepted, I will have to take a hard look at where I’m at. I guess at that point, I will either have to submit to my lower tier of journals, or scrap this story, write a better one, and try again. I’m not sure what I’ll do. I haven’t gotten any responses yet, so it’s a big fat mystery so far.

Keep in mind, too, that this is an investment. Ten journals, at $10-15 a submission, is going to cost a bit of cash, so don’t shoot yourself in the foot by making stupid mistakes. As an associate editor for a small journal here in Southern California, I have learned a few things by sorting through the slush pile:

  • Always include a cover letter. It doesn’t have to be long, just a few sentences saying that you are writing to submit your short story, “title here,” to “journal name here.” Get the name of the journal right.
  • Take a minute to look online at the masthead for the journal and address your cover letter to the editor by name.
  • Don’t tell them how great your story is. That can only count against you.
  • Be patient. It takes months to hear back. In fact, a quick response is almost always going to be a no, so if it takes a while, you can tell yourself that your piece has made it into the second or third round of reading, which is great.

Lastly, there is the question of reading the journals you plan to submit to. This is always a good idea, and even more so if you’re on a tight budget. You want to make sure that your work is appropriate for the journal you’re submitting to, or else you’re just throwing money away. Of course, if you have money to throw away, go crazy. I can’t imagine a journal that wouldn’t happily take your cash in exchange for a rejection letter.

Above all – don’t give up. Keep writing, keep submitting. The only difference between a successful writer and an unsuccessful writer is that the successful one never gives up.

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My New Writing Desk

Moving sucks.

We haven’t moved in so long, and we’ve never done it with kids, and there is so much to do, and we’ve entered the “I know it’s here somewhere” phase. Ug. And while getting ready to move, I’m trying to get our current house ready to go on the market. I weeded and planted the garden, re-seeded the parts of the grass that had gone brown, and called in a handy man to fix a couple things inside the house.

But there are some fun chores on our list. We went furniture shopping this weekend. The new house is bigger than our current house, not by much, but enough that we decided we wanted a couple book shelves, a table for the entryway, and (drumroll) a desk for my new office!

That’s right. Two weeks from now I will be writing from my very own home office. I used to have a home office here, but when my mom moved in, mid-2012, it became her room, and then when she moved out, my daughter pushed for it to be her room, so she wouldn’t have to share a room with her little brother any more.

These days I write on the couch, or at the kitchen table. It’s okay. I don’t mind, but after a long day my neck starts to ache. Ergonomic it is not. Also, I have nowhere to put anything.

I am so excited to have a home office again. And check out the desk we found:

Hemingway Desk

It’s called the Hemingway Safari Writing Desk. How perfect is that? I love it for so many reasons, not the least of which is that we got it for a total steal from a furniture store that lost its lease and is selling all their floor models for 50% off. (I love me a bargain.)

It will be delivered, along with the other items we bought at the perfectly-time fire sale, late next week.

Just a couple more weeks of total chaos.

We are never moving again.

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Feedback on my New Opening

Last week I got feedback from my class on my new opening pages.

When I finished the last draft of my story, I asked a former teacher of mine, Rita Williams, to give it a read. Her biggest note was that she felt I came into the story too late. In her opinion, the first 100 pages of the story were missing.

There was something that rang true in her feedback, and the more I considered it, the more I decided she was right.

Of course, you can’t just add 100 pages to the beginning of the story and not expect things to shift. So in addition to writing those pages, I am also doing the work of re-writing the rest of it, so that the end matches the beginning.

For this UCLA extension class that I’m taking, I submitted the (new) first twenty pages of my novel for critique. I was a little nervous, as I usually don’t show anyone new pages except for my writing group or my husband. But I got some great feedback.

In general, everyone was very encouraging. It’s a great start, they said. Their biggest note was that I could slow down a little bit. Classic first-timer mistake to try and get too much information in the first twenty pages.

I’ve found it very encouraging, and I’ve been writing up a storm this past week.

On a totally separate note, the moving supplies arrived this morning. We’re trying this service called EcoFastPacks. They deliver a whole pile of plastic bins and other packing materials. We pack and move, and when we’re done with them, the company comes and picks them up again.

I priced it out and it is about $30 more than buying cardboard boxes, but we’re saving trees, and I’d pay that just to not have to break down and deal with all the boxes when we’re done.

Here’s what they look like, freshly delivered:

boxes

I will admit that it made my heart hurt a little to realize it’s actually happening. I take a lot of comfort in my home. To start boxing it up, and to know that the next couple months will have me unsettled until I find a new place for everything in the new house, well, it brings up some anxiety.

But it’s happening. And I am excited for the new home. I just hope I can get through the next few months with a bit of grace.

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Creative Community

The kids’ school tagged a teacher-development day onto this three-day weekend to make it a whopping four-day extravaganza. So I’m sitting here, in the airport, on a Tuesday, after four fantastic days in Northern California, with mixed feelings about returning to Los Angeles.

I love Northern California for its beautiful hills, wonderful food, and old Victorian houses, but upon reflection, Southern California feels like a much more literary place. For all its faults, the writers I know (and know of) in Los Angeles are much more my kind of writers and these days, my community is everything to me.

There’s a grit to Southern California that appeals to my literary sensibilities. Visiting San Francisco this weekend, after nine years away, it was clear that The City is a tech city now. No two ways about it.

That’s not to say tech isn’t creative – it is. In fact, one of the things I love about visiting is that it’s a chance to catch up on the cool new apps and gadgets my friends are using. This weekend was no exception, and I am headed home with four new apps on my phone, but tech ingenuity is different than artistic expression.

I am much more interested in the larger questions addressed by art: What does it mean to fall in love? How do we reconcile with the path not taken? What do we do when zombies attack? These are the questions I’m interested in. And I am endlessly fascinated by the way writers explore them.

So, once again, I have confirmed that I’m a SoCal girl now.

hollywood sign

On a side note, tonight my writing class is critiquing the pages I submitted. I’m a little nervous to hear what they have to say, as the pages I sent in are new. This will be the first time anyone has read them. I let you know how it goes.

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